Outlook for Mississippi’s spring wild turkey season is promising across the state, with some regions expected to have an awful lot of gobblers to try and fool this season.
The bottom of the bluffs, with the first hint of daylight appearing over the crest, was a perfect place to stop and listen for a gobbler to announce his presence.
“Fixing to hoot,” said my hunting partner, Keith Partridge, a former guide from Terry. “Be listening.”
With that, he put his hands to his mouth to help direct the call and released a pretty fair rendition of an owl. He hooted to the beat of “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?”
As the notes bounced off the ridge farther and farther down the line, we listened. Finally, we heard a distant gobble.
“Sounds like he’s on the ridge, about halfway to the back,” I told Partridge. “I can’t believe it’s only one.”
Partridge shook it off.
“That’s just to wake them up,” he said. “Check this.”
He belted out another series of hoots, this time louder. He didn’t get in the second part of “Who cooks for you?” before he got an answer. This gobble was closer, judging by the volume.
And, it didn’t stop. A gobbling domino effect ensued.
Gobbles started coming from farther down the ridge. One gobbled, and the next one down gobbled back. Then the next.
When it reached the end of the ridge, near Bayou Pierre, the dominos started falling back up the ridge toward us.
“Got to be 10 or 12 different birds,” I said.
“At least,” said Partridge, “at least 24 or 25 gobbles, total down and back.”
A distant crow opened up, and the gobbles continued from the ridge. It was quite a show, the kind I’d driven two hours just to hear.
Then a gobble thundered from the opposite side of the bottom, near the swamp. When that bird roared, all the rest shut up. There would be no more gobbles from the ridge.
“That’s the one,” Partridge said. “That’s the one that will end up breaking our hearts before this spring is over. He’s the boss bird, and he’s roosted on the edge of the big field on the other side. He’ll fly down right in the middle of the field, out of gun range and he’ll wait for the hens to come to him, strutting and gobbling and eating in between.
“The way I see it, we got two choices. We can go after him, waste a few hours while he’s with his hens and then go home empty handed,” he said. “Or we can go find one of these subordinate gobblers and settle for a 2-year-old, too horny for his own good, and probably be done in an hour. What you think?”
Not being picky, I had a quick answer.
“Any one will do,” I said. “Let’s get it done.”
Ten minutes later, we were sitting on the edge of the big field, against the ridge, settled against trees just inside the wood line. We had two hen decoys deployed, and when the first rays of sunlight reached them, Partridge started calling with a few soft yelps.
A bird gobbled from behind us. Then another. Then another. They liked the man’s calls.
We were in a good spot, between the gobblers and the field and the decoys in the field. Partridge yelped again, slightly louder.
The gobblers responded again.
“I think it’s three of them, roosted close together,” Partridge said. “Let’s see if we can get them stirred up.”
He increased his call volume in a different rhythm and got the answer he wanted. The first bird gobbled, and the other ones doubled down on top of him. I cut my eyes over at Partridge and saw his smile before he lowed his face mask.
“This is going to happen quick,” he whispered, and all the while the gobbles continued, until.…
The boss bird opened up far across the bottom, shutting up the three gobblers we had talking.
“Doesn’t matter,” Partridge said. “They’re coming. Get ready. They will just show up, and unless they gobble again, we’ll have no idea where.”
I saw them first, three white heads coming through the brush to my right, appearing like bobble-head toys, about 75 yards away. They had decided to come in from our flank. Instead of alerting Partridge, I waited until they went below a rise and eased around to get my body and gun in position, knowing he’d see me move and get the message.
“I see them,” he said. “Wait until they reach the decoys, and then you take whichever one is on the right, and I’ll take one of the other two.”
Two minutes later, we were standing over two flopping gobblers, watching the third one running like a demon back to the ridge.
It was 6:58 on the first Saturday of the season — which had opened two days earlier — and we were done. After a short celebration, we were headed to Jackson for the St. Paddy’s Day parade.
Going off script
Wouldn’t it be great if all opening day hunts stuck to the script, with a happy ending? You go. You locate. You set up. You call. You shoot. You go home.
It’s rare, yes, but it does happen, or at least should, for every hunter at least once in his or her hunting career. We wouldn’t want it every hunt, because then it wouldn’t be the great sport that it is, an obsession rooted as much in frustration as in celebration.
Most of the frustration, Partridge said, is hunter-inflicted, and he pointed to the aforementioned hunt as an example.
“How many hunters do you think would have macho’ed up and gone after the dominant gobbler that morning?” he said. “In my early days, I’d have done that, and I’d have gone home empty handed, thinking, ‘It’s OK, I learned something today that I can bank and use later as the season progresses, and I will eventually learn how to kill that bird.’
“There’s nothing wrong with that mindset, either. It’s up to the hunter to decide why he’s there, hunting for a kill or hunting for the experience,” he said. “Knowing the dynamics of the turkey population on your hunting property is critical. That morning, I knew we had enough 2-year-old birds to go and have success, leaving me the rest of the year to play with that old gobbler. I knew we had a lot of hens, too, which would keep the boss bird busy for weeks. It took over half the season before he was desperately looking for hens. That’s when I got serious about him and was able to beat him.”
Fact is, Partridge said, beating a boss gobbler early in the season when his harem is full is always a long shot. Any early season success you might have with such a bird will involve luck, ambush or — God forgive us — baiting with corn or something illegal like using a centerfire rifle at 200 yards.
While there is a sprinkling of older, wiser and more stubborn gobblers throughout Mississippi, the best news for turkey hunters involves what’s to come, especially for the north and Delta regions.
Forecast good for most
Adam Butler, the turkey program coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, has good news for many hunters in Mississippi, based on data gathered through the agency’s annual spring gobbler hunting survey and the summer brood survey.
“It appears that turkeys are on the upswing across almost the entirety of Mississippi,” he said. “Some of that will be beneficial this season, and some of it will be of more impact in future seasons, like 2020. The good news is that there’s something good for most areas to take way from the data.”
Butler listed some of the key points of the forecast:
- “The 2018 hatch was increased over the previous year, which means most hunters should see more turkeys in the woods this spring. This was especially true in nearly all of south Mississippi, a good chunk of central Mississippi, and most of the lands up and down the Mississippi River between Vicksburg and Memphis. These areas all saw an extraordinary hatch that should yield substantial population increases, but keep in mind the gobblers from last year’s hatch will be jakes this spring, and therefore, won’t pay many dividends to hunters this year — but do set things up nicely for 2020 and beyond.”
- “Based on the spring gobbler hunting survey, jake sightings in the northern third of the state were up last spring, meaning this part of the world should have plenty of 2-year-olds running around this spring. Same for lands along the Mississippi River. Both of these might be hot spots for 2019.”
- “Jake sightings in central and south Mississippi were down a little last year, so hunters in those areas will probably see similar to maybe slightly fewer adult gobblers in 2019. But, again, they should have plenty to smile about due to the big influx of new birds from last summer’s hatch.”
Knowing the population is on an upswing is good, but knowing exactly the situation on a particular piece of property is critical to an individual hunter’s success. That takes scouting, which in recent years has become a lot easier thanks to technological advancement.
Most modern-era turkey hunters know well the status of turkeys on their primary hunting property, usually because of encounters with them during the deer season, either by eyeball or camera.
“Until about five years ago, all my scouting was by (binoculars) to spot birds in February or early March,” said hunter Gary Townsend of Brandon. “With the advent of trail cameras, however, it has gotten easier. A lot of deer hunters remove their cameras, or at least shut them off, as soon as the season ends. We don’t, and as a matter of fact, we even add a few in places where we think turkeys travel.
“Camera scouting allows us to keep check on many areas, including some that would be difficult to scout without spooking the turkeys. We don’t feed, so we can’t simply throw out some corn and set up a camera. That really doesn’t tell you much anyway, except how many birds you may have. What I want to know is their travel patterns, strutting sites and feeding areas. If we find a likely dusting site, we’ll hang a camera there, too.”
Using the cameras away from feeders makes it easier to check the memory cards.
“The best turkey cameras are those that stream photos or video to your computer or cell phone,” Townsend said. “That keeps you out of the woods most of the time, but that’s expensive, so a lot of us use more simpler and affordable cameras with cache cards. If you have them around feeders, there’s no safe time to check them, except at night, when the birds are roosted. That’s why we like them in the woods, on trails, logging roads, clearings and so forth — to see where they are going.
“We can start to pattern them from those movements, and we can get to the cams either at night while they’re roosted or, even if it has to be during the day, the odds are less in bumping them than around a feeder.”
A new dawn: Game Check mandatory in 2019
Ever wondered just how many hunters have such good luck on their first day — or any other day — in the turkey woods?
Beginning this year, wildlife officials will know, thanks to the new mandatory turkey harvest-reporting system known as Game Check being implemented by the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks (MDWFP) for the 2019 spring gobbler season.
For the first time, successful turkey hunters must report their kills by 10 p.m. the date of harvest. This should pay double benefit of keeping hunters mindful of the limit and instant information for biologists.
“We will learn so much more than we have in the past,” said Adam Butler, the turkey program coordinator for MDWFP. “Everything we’ve learned from hunters to this point has been voluntary, and we’ll still depend on their input to our spring gobbler survey. Game Check will give us real-time results.”
The reporting system should go well beyond the obvious goal of helping hold hunters to the limit, and it doesn’t take a biologist to see the statistical and educational possibilities to be gleaned from it.
Biologists can match harvests to the weather and calendar and do it by regions, and it can all be done without putting each hunter through an ordeal, such as a physical tag or visiting a check station.
The process is simple enough. Each hunter must have in his or her possession while hunting a harvest report card, either one provided by the MDWFP or made by the hunter — an adult can carry one for a child. On it, each bird killed must be immediately listed before it can be transported. Then, before 10 p.m. on the day of kill, the bird must be reported to the MDWFP, which will be possible either through an MDWFP smartphone app, online at the MDWFP.com web portal or by phone.
“By having the deadline at 10 p.m., it gives hunters in some rural areas more time to find a signal for their phones or to get home to a computer,” Butler said. “It gives the hunter flexibility.”
Hunters will be provided with a harvest confirmation number that must then be added to the hunter’s harvest report.
Voila! Done, and the hunter is in complete compliance.
Failure to comply can be costly. It results in a Class III violation, which upon conviction carries a fine of not less that $25 nor more than $100. The court can also add a penalty of $25 for each bird/animal involved.
The expensive part comes in the form of an administrative fee imposed and collected upon conviction: not less than $100 nor more than $500 for first offense, $500 to $1,000 for a second or subsequent violation.